Poland’s Illegal Spies Are the Stars of a Real-Life Espionage Thriller

When Poland announced the arrest of a Russian ice hockey star in 2023, the news rattled the nation. The 20-year-old was one of 14 citizens of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine convicted of planning sabotage and monitoring critical infrastructure on behalf of Moscow.

The defendants - jailed for various terms between 13 months and six years - were convicted in absentia after pleading guilty and skipping their trials. The Russian sportsman had joined a Polish hockey club and was identified only 'Maxim S.'

Poland, a conduit for Western military equipment destined for war-torn Ukraine, is now a high-stakes battleground in the war between intelligence agencies. Intelligence historians must be smirking at the irony, however. Russia certainly isn’t the only country to run an illegals program. Poland’s deep-cover agents have infiltrated Israel's Shin Bet and spread their tentacles across the Scandinavian countries throughout history. “Poland did have illegals during the Cold War, as did Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria,” said Kevin P. Riehle, a former US government counterintelligence analyst and author of Russian Intelligence. “They were trained by the Soviets to operate.”

There have been spies living next door for at least a century.

 Poland convicted 14 suspected spies in 2023 including a hockey player

The illegals

Moscow's illegals program dates back to the 1920s before countries extended diplomatic recognition to the Bolshevik regime. With no embassies to post ‘legal’ officers, Soviet intelligence dispatched illegals and carried on funding the program long after Soviet embassies opened around the world.

“Illegals create entirely new legends, entirely new people. They take on the persona of someone completely fictitious, or sometimes a real person who has died. They completely overlay a new identity on top of themselves. And they do that by creating a legend that ideally allows them to melt into society without anyone ever noticing them,” Riehle said.

The advantage of deploying illegal spies is that they can operate with less counterintelligence scrutiny for years or even a decade. They don’t have diplomatic immunity if they are caught though, so the stakes are high. Russian-born German journalist and illegal Richard Sorge headed a WWII spy ring before his arrest and 1944 execution in Japan. During the Cold War, Rudolf Abel (the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies) was imprisoned in the US in 1957 and exchanged for U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers five years later.

Moscow is also taking a risk. They invest a considerable amount of time and money training illegals for years before their spies are dispatched to foreign countries where they operate with little supervision. Some ‘go native’, including Aleksandr Siepelgas who defected in Finland during the Soviet era and at least two dozen others. East German-born KGB sleeper agent Jack Barsky was embedded in New York during the 1980s and falsely claimed he was being treated in the US for AIDS so he could cut ties with Moscow. He was arrested by the FBI in 1997, cooperated, and was eventually granted a US passport.

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, center) stars with Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies


Poland’s Illegal Spies Are the Stars of a Real-Life Espionage Thriller

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When Poland announced the arrest of a Russian ice hockey star in 2023, the news rattled the nation. The 20-year-old was one of 14 citizens of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine convicted of planning sabotage and monitoring critical infrastructure on behalf of Moscow.

The defendants - jailed for various terms between 13 months and six years - were convicted in absentia after pleading guilty and skipping their trials. The Russian sportsman had joined a Polish hockey club and was identified only 'Maxim S.'

Poland, a conduit for Western military equipment destined for war-torn Ukraine, is now a high-stakes battleground in the war between intelligence agencies. Intelligence historians must be smirking at the irony, however. Russia certainly isn’t the only country to run an illegals program. Poland’s deep-cover agents have infiltrated Israel's Shin Bet and spread their tentacles across the Scandinavian countries throughout history. “Poland did have illegals during the Cold War, as did Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria,” said Kevin P. Riehle, a former US government counterintelligence analyst and author of Russian Intelligence. “They were trained by the Soviets to operate.”

There have been spies living next door for at least a century.

 Poland convicted 14 suspected spies in 2023 including a hockey player

The illegals

Moscow's illegals program dates back to the 1920s before countries extended diplomatic recognition to the Bolshevik regime. With no embassies to post ‘legal’ officers, Soviet intelligence dispatched illegals and carried on funding the program long after Soviet embassies opened around the world.

“Illegals create entirely new legends, entirely new people. They take on the persona of someone completely fictitious, or sometimes a real person who has died. They completely overlay a new identity on top of themselves. And they do that by creating a legend that ideally allows them to melt into society without anyone ever noticing them,” Riehle said.

The advantage of deploying illegal spies is that they can operate with less counterintelligence scrutiny for years or even a decade. They don’t have diplomatic immunity if they are caught though, so the stakes are high. Russian-born German journalist and illegal Richard Sorge headed a WWII spy ring before his arrest and 1944 execution in Japan. During the Cold War, Rudolf Abel (the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies) was imprisoned in the US in 1957 and exchanged for U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers five years later.

Moscow is also taking a risk. They invest a considerable amount of time and money training illegals for years before their spies are dispatched to foreign countries where they operate with little supervision. Some ‘go native’, including Aleksandr Siepelgas who defected in Finland during the Soviet era and at least two dozen others. East German-born KGB sleeper agent Jack Barsky was embedded in New York during the 1980s and falsely claimed he was being treated in the US for AIDS so he could cut ties with Moscow. He was arrested by the FBI in 1997, cooperated, and was eventually granted a US passport.

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, center) stars with Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies


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A real-life Scandi thriller?

The Soviets also exported their illegals concept to other countries. Western counterintelligence has been aware of the Polish program since at least 1959 when two Polish illegals broke ranks. Lt. Col. Henryk Adler-Trojan defected to France. Władysław Mróz, an illegal handling officer, escaped to the West and revealed that an agent, Poland’s Lucjan Levi, had infiltrated Israel's Shin Bet spy agency. Mróz was murdered in Paris in 1960.

According to Polish Lt. Col. Janusz Kochański, who defected to the US in 1967, Mróz also helped organize networks of illegals in Scandinavian countries in the post-WWII years from 1947 to 1949.

More recently, a Russian-born Swedish citizen, Sergey Skvortsov, was charged in August 2023 with spying for Russia's GRU military intelligence. The suspected sleeper spy was arrested by an elite police unit that repelled from Black Hawk helicopters into his home in a spectacular pre-dawn raid near Stockholm. The 60-year-old was charged with carrying out "unlawful intelligence activities" against the US and Sweden for a decade until his arrest in November 2022, according to court documents.

Warsaw, Poland, a city of spies


Spies like us: Poland’s illegals program

In the early 1970s, the Polish Ministry of Interior explained how its illegals program worked, the types of covers adopted, and how they could be better integrate illegals into Poland’s intelligence community.

“This advantage lies primarily in better clandestinity, freedom of action resulting from the lack of permanent hostile counterintelligence surveillance, and the possibility of conducting intelligence work under any conditions: after a break in diplomatic relations, during wartime, etc,” Poland’s spies noted in the previously classified document. “Every armed conflict, every break of diplomatic relations, every instance of increased surveillance on our foreign representations places us in a situation that requires a well-organized and well-working intelligence apparatus operating from illegal positions.”

Is Poland still operating an illegals program today? Riehle finds it unlikely as the cost of running deep undercover agents for years is prohibitive. Still, he finds the 1970s document valuable as it offers a rare insight into the Polish Cold War program.

Illegals returned to the public eye in 2010 with Operation Ghost Stories, when 12 deep undercover spies were publicly identified in the US and 10 were arrested. Other illegals were exposed in Germany and Spain in 2011 but that certainly wasn’t the end of the story. Since the start of the Ukraine war, an estimated 400 Russian diplomats have been expelled from embassies and dozens of suspected Russian illegals (along with Bulgarians and nationals of other countries) have been rounded up or exposed in Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Brazil and many other countries. It seems they’re here to stay.

“Illegals have probably become more important because of the loss of the diplomatic cover officers in Europe in particular,” Riehle said. “It means you have to use another platform.”

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